Israeli Sinologist studies China through ancient thoughts
How Israeli Sinologist Yuri Pines got into Chinese studies is the stuff of movies: His initial understanding of China was different, but he developed an interest in Chinese philosophy while in prison near Haifa, Israel. And, his early readings on China were in Russian.
Some 30 years since Pines first started to learnChinese, he is still delving into ancient Chinese political thoughts, which he thinks are immensely rich and could help the world to become more pluralistic and engaging.
Born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1964, Pines grew up in the former Soviet Union at a time when ties between China and the Soviet had deteriorated.
Henowteaches atHebrew University of Jerusalem.
“In my early education, China was an enemy — a threat to the Soviet Union,” recalls Pines.
“ButwhenIcameto Israel, nobody was interested in China,” says Pines, who migrated to Israel when he was 15. “People didn’t pay attention to China, and maybe, Asia at all.”
It was a coincidence that sparked Pines’ interest in China.
In the early 1980s, Pines, like most adults in his adopted country, was conscripted into the army but his refusal to serve in theWest Bank led him to an Israeli military prisonwherehespentsixmonths.
There, among the detainees, he met someone who had studied Chinese philosophy and talked about it with Pines. That aroused Pines’ curiosity.
After being released, Pines went to a library to borrow booksonChinese philosophy.
Pines recalls he didn’t find books inHebrewaboutChina at the time, so he borrowed some books in Russian and read them in a fewweeks.
“It’s a great feeling when you discover a new world,” says Pines. “It’s so interesting, so different, and so deep. I said, ‘I must study it.’”
In the end, those Russian books on China led Pines to the department of East Asian studies at Hebrew University in 1985.
There were few people who studied Chinese in Israel in the 1980s. Since 1992, when China and Israel established diplomatic relations, the number of Israeli people interested in China has risen significantly.
During the early ’90s, Pines used his Chinese language skills to work as a part-time tour guide, brining tourist groups to China twice a year. And every time he traveled from China, his luggage had a few more books from the country.
“I would take tourists to Nanjing Road in Shanghai, and let them to buy whatever they wanted. I would then run to the bookstores on the next street,” says Pines. “I had only one hour formyself.”
After eight years of studying China, Pines gained a master’s degree in 1994 and came to study atNankaiUniversity inTianjinonagovernmental exchange program.
Pines stayed for one year in the northern city. Since he was interested in ancient Chinese political philosophy, he studied with renowned historian Liu Zehua. The history Pines studied was of the Warring States Period (475221 BC), when different political philosophies flourished.
A popular Chinese idiom — the contention of 100 schools of thought — describes the lively ideas of Confucianism, Taoism, the School of Lawand so on.
“It’s interesting to study how those Chinese thinkers tried to resolve problems facing the different states,” says Pines. “Though no solution was ideal, all the solutions together provided options for future rulers to deploy.”
In 1998, Pines finished his PhD in East Asian studies at Hebrew University and has been teaching there since. He has authored several books onChinese historyandpolitical philosophy in Hebrew and English, and plans to write one in Chinese.
His most recent English monograph, The Everlasting Empire: Traditional Chinese Political Culture and Its Enduring Legacy, was published in 2012 by Princeton University Press.
His newwork, The Book of Lord Shang: Apologetics of State Power in Early China, is expected to be published early next year.
“I was once a believer that there is a good solution for everything, but now I realize there’s no one universal solution for everything, just like we cannot eat the same food all the time,” says Pines. “This is the most important lesson Chinese philosophies offer to the world.”